Vancouver Island produces a world-champion brie

Comox Brie from Natural Pastures Cheese of Vancouver Island.

It takes a big person to admit a big mistake.  And I’m, um, a big person.  I can’t believe it! I have made a grievous cheese-based error.  I have somehow overlooked the World Championship Cheese Contest gold medalist—even though it’s made in my own backyard.  Forgive me, cheese gods!

I was in my local market in Vancouver the other day, checking out the cheese—as I always do—when something caught my eye on the package of Comox Brie.  That something was a Gold medal. Yikes! A cheese Gold medal.  You see, I purposefully overlooked this cheese BECAUSE it’s always at my local market. I made the mistake of assuming that anything that could be widely purchased was crap, and that’s just foolish snobbery on my part. Do not be trapped into this assumption. I can’t tell you how many “artisan” type handmade cheeses I have tried that were just kind of meh, and how many widely available cheeses I have tried that really rocked.  I know, it seems wrong, but I must speak the cheese truth.

Comox Brie comes from the town of Courtenay, a small town on Vancouver Island with a close connection to my own hometown, Powell River.  I spent many days in my youth wandering the little streets of this town. Comox is an even tinier little town near Courtnenay. Comox Brie takes its name from this town.  Sweet. I feel almost like cousins.

Natural Pastures Cheese Company is a family owned affair.  The Smith family makes only “artisan cheeses,” all hand-made under the guidance of their very own Swiss  Master Cheesemaker Paul Sutter, originally from Switzerland where he received traditional Swiss training and professional accreditation. For the record, I also would like my very own Master Swiss cheesemaker!

Guest blogger and author Willow Yamauchi.

Natural Pastures sources all the milk from its own farm, Beaver Meadow, as well as a handful of other local farms, all on Vancouver Island. Thus the “terroir” of the  coastal valley environment is evident in this cheese—all the milk coming from a single area.  Interestingly, when I was a child we sometimes ate bear.  If the bear had been feastin

g on berries, the meat was sweet and succulent.  If, however, the bear had been feasting on salmon, the meat was, well, fishy.  This is an example of terroir that I just wanted to share with you, because it’s my blog, and I can say whatever I want!  Ha!

I digress.  The Smith family turned to cheesemaking in 2001 and have made a big splash on the cheese world winning 40-plus prestigious national and international awards. How did I miss this?  Scratches head.  Interestingly, the farms they work with, “Heritage Dairy Farms,” are committed to environmental sustainability including natural wildlife habitat. Their  enhanced stream habitats raise thousands of wild Coho Salmon each year which could be eaten by bears causing a unique salmon terroir.  See, full circle logic.

I digress again.  Natural Pastures Cheese Comox Brie earned the pinnacle World Championship Gold Medal in the 27th biennial World Championship Cheese Contest, a technical evaluation of cheese by an international panel of 22 judges, experts in cheese evaluation. Again, I shall volunteer to be a judge at this event.  It saddens me that I have not been called upon to judge cheese, as I am so clearly qualified!

I digress yet again.  As the first World Championship cheese ever produced from Vancouver Island and the first WCC gold medal Brie ever from western Canada, scoring 98.95, Comox Brie edged out Damafro’s double crème from Quebec (which I previously reviewed and ADORED, OMG, so good).   Comox Brie begins with milk from a herd of Ayrshire cattle raised by Guy Sim, a Canada Master Breeder. Wow, this cheese and the cows all have their own pedigree! I’m assuming this is a pasteurized cheese, but I can’t be sure. I’m about 99.99% certain of this, but as the wrapper has disappeared and it doesn’t say on the website, it’s an educated guess at this point.

I have actually had a hard time reviewing Comox Brie, chiefly because everyone in my family kept eating it before I was ready to sample it.  My small wedge—which was much larger before the swarm of locusts known as my family descended upon it—is a typical white-looking brie: penicillium mold on the outside (yup, the white stuff is mold, deal with it) and creamy buttery interior.  I have wisely chosen to taste this one right before the best before date, when the brie is perfect.  Like women, brie really must be aged in order to achieve true greatness.  You can tell a brie is ready if it’s gooey inside. If it’s kind of dry and chalky, you have a young brie. Put it back! This Comox Brie is gorgeous looking, so creamy and succulent, it smells  faintly of ammonia, mushroom and um, adult pleasures . . . shall I leave it at that?

Here goes….

Mmmmm . . . Oh my lord, now this is a great brie. Like, really, really great. It’s perfectly ripened, look at the picture above, see how it’s gooey all the way through, that’s what you want!  It’s making love to my teeth and tongue.  It’s salty and creamy and slightly uric and carnal . . . Oh yes, this is a carnal little cheese. This is actually quite a naughty little cheese. This is the way I always want brie to be but it rarely is.  It’s absolutely divine.  Yes, this is a Gold Medal winner—all the way.  Scrumptious!  Go and get yourself some of this, stat.  Let it ripen up until the best before date and go for it. You’ll thank me later.

—Willow Yamauchi

Guest blog courtesy of Willow Yamauchi, creater of My Blog of Cheese: My 100-day gastronomic journey into fromage—one day at a time—one cheese at a time. Comox Brief was her 113rd cheese in an ongoing quest for pleasure.

Natural Pastures Cheese is a Featured Cheesemaker at the second annual Great Canadian Cheese Festival taking place this weekend in Picton, in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Doug Smith, one of three brothers operating Natural Pastures, will be featured in the Breakfast of Champions presentation.

Festival tickets are available online. Buy in advance and save money for cheese purchases.

Restos take note: All cheese is not created equal

It's a lovely dish at Currah's Cafe & Restaurant in Picton but the baked "brie" is pedestrian.

I’m not a cheese snob. Sure, I have a preference for farmstead and artisan cheese, but several industrial cheeses are among my favourites. Having said that . . . here comes the big BUT:

All cheese is not created equal. Two restaurants recently demonstrated that.

At Currah’s Cafe & Restaurant in Picton, Ontario, we ordered baked brie. The menu said the brie was Canadian, so we asked the waiter who the producer was. At first he said he did not know. We had to prod him to ask the kitchen. Off he went, and back he came: “It’s Danish brie.”

“Oh,” we said, “the menu says it’s Canadian.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he replied.

“Oh, yes, it does,” we insisted, and off he went to look at a menu.

“You’re right,” he said. “Someone in the kitchen lied.”

“Well . . . could you please ask who the producer is? We like to know what we’ll be eating.”

After a few minutes, he returned with the news: “It’s from Montreal.”

“OK, that’s a big city. Who or where in Montreal?”

“All they know is it says ARS on the package.”

Hmmm, never heard of a cheesemaker in Quebec called ARS. (Later, thanks to Google, we discover ARS Foods, a specialy foods supplier.) When the dish arrived, the presentation was lovely and the onion marmalade quite nice, but the cheese was, well, pedestrian.

With so many stunning soft cheeses in Quebec that will easily match genuine Brie from France, why would Currah’s, which clearly aims to play with the big boys on the resto scene in Prince Edward County, chose to go with a no-name pretender?

It's a good-looking poutine at Rubbs Barbecue Bistro in Campbellford but the cheese curds are blah.

In Campbellford, a half-hour north of Picton, Rubbs Barbecue Bistro serves a good-looking poutine. The fries are chunky, the gravy beefy, and the cheese curds are layered through the dish. Here’s the but again: When one asks about the source of the cheese, “Sysco” is the response.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Sysco, which helps serve millions of meals in restaurants, hotels and others across Canada, but just a few minutes down the road from Rubbs is one of the finest producers of cheese curd and cheddar in Ontario: Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op.

At Empire, which dates back to 1870, cheese is made in the traditional way in open-style vats, with no additives to boost production and no flavours added.

All cheese is not created equal. All restaurants are not either.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheesehead-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, will gladly return to Currah’s and Rubbs when they bring the cheese they serve up a notch.

Good cheese hunting: Day 12 and crêped out

We lied. After dining at Crêperie Chez Suzette in Old Montreal, we’re unable to stay away from the blog. Here’s why:

Brie, Gruyere and mozzarella—with a splash of maple syrup—make le crêpe aux trois fromages an amazing dish, cheesy and so tasty.

La Florentine is a crêpe stuffed with spinach and Brie and served with a béchamel sauce. Yum.

There is no cheese involved but we couldn't resist showing you a decadent dessert named Sonia: A crêpe served with fresh strawberries, bananas, ice cream and Belgian chocolate sauce.

We know, we know, the dessert looks, well, over the top, but it was utterly delicious.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, is traveling with his Significant Other to Le Festival des Fromages de Warwick.

Good cheese hunting: Day 6, arrival in Montreal

Once we hit Montreal, it didn’t take us long to find our way to Atwater Market.

Quebec brie oozes from our ham sandwich at Première Moisson, an excellent bakery and café in the market—and many other locations across Montreal.

I know, I know, it isn't cheese but le paté canard et son fois gras was incredibly good at Première Moisson.

La fromagerie Atwater, which carries some 750 varieties of cheese, has served as a cornerstone of the artisan cheese movement in Quebec for two decades.

Sylvie, cheesemonger par excellence at Fromagerie Atwater, introduced us to four new-to-us Quebec cheeses which we'll report on in due course.

Related links:

Sweet goat-cheese mousse: What a concept!

Spectacular fireworks open Winterlude in Ottawa. Photo by Dennis Catangay.

Kicking back in Zoe’s Lounge at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa is a fine way to conclude a road trip that started 10 hours earlier. We have a window table under the atrium with a view of the stately National Arts Centre and Wellington Street where pedestrians in parkas and toques scurry back and forth.

As we had a productive meeting earlier in Picton to discuss the Ontario cheese trail concept, I’d like to end the day on a cheese high. I order a French onion soup, make a “Canadian cheese board” my main, and finish the meal with what turns out to be an exceptional apple cake.

The aroma from the duo of cheeses—Gruyere and Oka, both from Quebec—on the onion soup makes it soooooooo inviting. Significant Other makes a note to combine the two on a grilled cheese sandwich sometime. The soup itself is rich and hearty. (Why is that the closer one gets to the Quebec, the better the French onions soups taste?)

The Canadian cheese plate is fine in an ordinary sort of way: Oka is always nice, three-year Balderson Heritage Cheddar has bite, Ermite from Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac has blue tang and a linger of mushrooms, while the Chevalier Triple Cream Brie is suitably creamy. On the side there is a tasty mission-fig chutney and a perfect cluster of small grapes.

But the piece de resistance is the apple cake, more specifically, brown butter apple cake served with roasted walnut vanilla ice cream, marinated cranberries, drizzle of creme anglaise and caramel sauce, and—Wait for it!—a dollop of sweet goat-cheese mousse.

What an amazing flavour! The sweetened whipped cream is a perfect match for the goat cheese. A perfect end to the meal and a day on the road to visit Ottawa for Winterlude.